Dominique Strauss-Kahn case: Why it's so hard to bring charges against the rich and powerful

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What Women Really Think
July 1 2011 10:50 AM

Why DSK Could Walk Even if His Victim Is Telling the Truth About Being Raped  

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It appears that the New York Times story that broke last night is correct, that the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is crumbling. Bloomberg is reporting that the former IMF head will be released on his own recognizance while facing charges that he raped a hotel maid on a visit to the United States in May. As the Times reported last night, “investigators have uncovered major holes in the credibility of the housekeeper.”

Rachael Larimore Rachael Larimore

Rachael Larimore is a Slate senior editor.

Mind you, the woman still says she was attacked, and nothing in the Times article indicates that she lied about what happened between Strauss-Kahn and her, except a vague statement that prosecutors don’t “believe much of what the accuser has told them about the circumstances.” And there is still the incontrovertible DNA evidence that something happened between them.

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The problems appear to be that 1) the woman has “possible links to people involved in criminal activities, including drug dealing and money laundering”; 2) she spoke with an imprisoned acquaintance about “the possible benefits of pursuing the charges against him” and 3) there are some discrepancies between her asylum application and what she told investigators about that application.

As for those: 1) having links to “people involved in criminal activities” does not by itself make one a criminal; 2) is it really so wrong to wonder aloud how one might benefit from being raped by a rich and powerful man? Rape turns your life upside down, makes you feel battered and fearful to be alone. It might not be the smartest decision, no. But it’s not like they have her on tape two days BEFORE the incident talking to someone about how to blackmail an innocent man with a rape allegation. The third issue—the discrepancies between her asylum application and what she told police they would find in her application are confusing and perhaps mildly troubling, but they do not change what happened in that hotel room.

It would be nice to think that we lived in a country where even those who run afoul of the law were entitled to the same protections as the rest of us. Having a few unpaid parking tickets doesn’t mean that muggers have a right to your wallet, and a teenage past full of shoplifting busts doesn’t mean you should be subjected to a hit-and-run or get beat up walking down the street.

But the judicial process does not make it easy to pursue rape charges. Emily Bazelon and I researched false rape allegations for Slate in 2009, when a Hofstra student garnered headlines for recanting after claiming that she was gang-raped by five men in a bathroom. What we learned is that, whatever the percentage of false rape allegations is (a number that’s surprisingly hard to discern), they do a disproportionate amount of damage. One of our sources told us that, first off, police are highly suspicious of accusers, because they’ve either been burned by a false accuser or have heard similar stories from colleagues. That doesn’t appear to be the case with Strauss-Kahn’s alleged victim—the police reacted quickly and seriously. But even if a woman manages to file a police report and her accuser is charged and the case goes to trial, there’s another hurdle. Juries are similarly hard on rape accusers. Steve Cullen, an Army attorney who's worked extensively as a prosecutor, explained it to us:

Often in sexual assault prosecutions there's no debate as to the sex, but everything falls on proving lack of consent—and can only be proven through a convincing and persuasive victim's testimony. Often, that victim's testimony has to overcome some less than ideal circumstances—she was drinking, people observed her flirting with the perpetrator etc.

No, the victim in this case wasn’t drinking or flirting. But the questions about her integrity would have the same effect on a jury. If she could lie about her asylum application, for whatever reason, then she might be lying about her attack. As such, what prosecutor wants to stake his or her career or reputation on a case that the jury is probably going to laugh at? It’s an unfortunate reality. There’s an old saw that “it’s better to let 10 guilty men go free than convict a single innocent man.” Maybe, but it’s frustrating when a case can’t even be brought to trial.

And pity the next woman who tries to bring rape charges against a powerful man.

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